BRENTWOOD — A Chester man accused sexually assaulting a young girl in the 1990s and failing to register as a sex offender will also have to answer to a felony weapons charge after a judge deemed that a search of his apartment was legal.
Gary Britton, 59, challenged the September 2011 search of his home done by his landlords, claiming any evidence later seized by Chester police could not be used against him.
Judge N. William Delker decided that police may have been searching for child pornography while going through the apartment on Oct. 6 but still had the legal right to seize the handgun when it was discovered.
Chester Police Chief William Burke discovered the firearm in a sealed plastic zipper bag during the search when he ran his hand across the top of a bureau mirror.
Delker concluded Burke was entitled to open the bag while conducting his search because it could have contained the types of pen drives or other hardware that police were looking for.
“This could easily have been a computer component or some other object that contained child pornography,” Delker concluded.
When the gun was found instead, the chief “was aware at the time that the defendant was a convicted felon,” barred from having weapons, Delker concluded.
Britton, a convicted sex offender, was later charged with being a felon in possession of a weapon.
The search also spawned an investigation that has led to Britton to be arrested on charges of aggravated felonious sexual assault and failure to register as a sex offender. Both of those cases are now pending in Rockingham County Superior Court.
Britton’s home computer is also being examined for child pornography, according to police affidavits and the judge’s order.
Police first arrested Britton on Sept. 22 for his failure to re-register as a sex offender. That happened just hours after he was served eviction papers, according to court records.
The eviction prompted brothers Ronald and Robert Contraros, the landlords, to begin cleaning out the apartment so it could be rented again, court records say. Once they found child pornography on the computer, they called their lawyer, who promptly reported it to police.
Defense lawyer Julia Nye argued that police conducted a warrantless search with the Contraroses acting as agents of the police as they guided them through the apartment to show what they found.
Even if the search warrant was valid, the defense argued, police did not receive permission to search for or seize a firearm.
Assistant County Attorney Brad Bolton argued that when Burke ran his hand across the top of the bureau’s mirror, he was looking for computer hardware that could have been hidden.
“He was running his hand across the top of the mirror in an effort to locate small computer memory devices or video discs and felt a plastic bag,” Bolton wrote.
Britton is expected to plead guilty to failing to register as a sex offender on July 17 in superior court.
His trial on the weapons charge — which carries a potential 3½ to 7 year prison sentence — is set for the week of Aug. 13.
He was not yet been indicted in the sexual assault case. Police say the sexual assaults happened between 1991 and 1999, beginning when the girl was 9 years old.
No charges have been filed in relation to the child pornography investigation.